City of Departures: Helen Tookey, Carcanet

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Helen Tookey teaches creative writing at Liverpool John Moores University. Her debut collection, Missel-Child (Carcanet 2014), was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre prize for first full collection, and her current collection made the Forward prize shortlist this year.

If you write poetry or dream of writing poetry, City of Departures offers considerable inspiration. Its title suggests the longing and melancholy of separation. Its cover image from Algernon Newton’s painting of the Surrey Canal in Camberwell establishes an atmosphere of romantic sadness.Yet the much wider possibilities of ‘departure’ open up in poems that derive from dreams, paintings, photographs, the inscriptions on gravestones, love letters, and National Trust signage in Plas Newydd, Anglesey.  Their speculative, conversational pace resembles trusting confessions shared by close friends.  Not much is always said, but its emotional import cannot be ignored. 

The collection divides into four sections, the first focusing on a sense of place. This could ground the reader; yet doubt is soon cast upon the certainty or solidity of place. Often the language of dream recall is evoked, for example in the prose poem, ‘City of Departures’:


I was walking through narrow streets close to the docks, under the piers of bridges, through brick archways. The cobblestones  were wet and I had on no shoes. There had been a railway accident … You didn’t appear and yet you were present


This scene felt “familiar, already lived-through” and its cityscape images are persuasive. Yet nothing can be assumed.  The bare feet on cobbles introduce a surreal quality and the speaker is left, finally, with the wrong language and currency in an anything but “familiar” city. 

Dreams and the confusions of memory pervade these poems. In ‘Chapel’, “… it wasn’t like this, she says./Not when I saw it before.”


     There were candles, she says.  A plain wooden cross.

     There were dry leaves whispering in corners,


     ivy, and elder, and bitter apples.


Section two continues to evidence the instability of the remembered or taken for granted world. In ‘Being Mary Lennox’ four tercets of true-to-life description finish with the sentence: “Then with the flat of your hand/you send the whole scene flying.”  In ‘Leonora’ the protagonist lets herself out through the trapdoor she’s made in the dining-room table.

Mary Lennox, of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and the surrealist artist Leonora Carrington are precursors of the many poets, writers and artists who provide Helen Tookey’s points of departure. I finished the collection with a reading list I couldn’t wait to start on.

Section three draws on even more specific sources: a hotel in France; Adam Opel, the engineer of the first sewing machine; Winsor and Newton, the artists’ materials company; and the haunting paintings of Algernon Newton (grandson of Henry Newton) and Danish artist, Vilhelm Hammershøi. I particularly enjoyed ‘Aftermaths’ which presents some of Newton’s paintings as an aftermath of whatever came before:


     Canals have always seen too much.

     The blinded windows, the black

     thin trees - they swallow everything

     whole …


     You could turn, walk back

     the way you came —the open fields

     with their sudden patches of black.


     But, of course, you can’t.

     There is only the going-forward,

     And the gap.


Section four begins with ‘Map’ and many of its poems refer to specific places: Hamburg’s Speicherstadt; Quend-Plage-les-Pins near the Somme; Mow Cop, a hill near Macclesfield.  Perhaps the woman who the speaker follows in ‘Map’ is Ida Hammershøi, who appears in section three, and who was so often painted from the back by Vilhelm. Here there is a call for connection via locatedness and ‘Map’ ends:


     I want to ask her to lay her map

     down over mine, watch me turn them

     till they find alignment, coming to meet

     at this single point, then heading away.


Finally ‘Skizzen/Sketches’ uses journal writing to trace Helen Tookey’s fascinating travels in Copenhagen and Hamburg and her engagement with the works of artists and poets. Here we revisit City of Departures’ core exploration of uncertainty, “a self in the process of disappearing” as Tookey says of Anita Rée’s self-portraits. Of herself Tookey says:  “Tomorrow I must fly back. For tonight, though, I am here — or at least someone is here, holding a tall glass with a glass straw …”.


Helen Tookey, City of Departures, Carcanet, £9.99




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